RENO, Nev. — There’s only one reason why Josh Howard would be dressing in a cramped makeshift locker room, trying to work the tightness out of a balky hamstring and hoping to get a chance to run the floor in front of an audience that would might number 200 if you counted the security guards and maintenance workers.
“I’m still living my dream of playing basketball for a living,” he said.
Of course, that fantasy was on a much grander scale four years ago when Howard was in the third season of a four-year contract worth $40 million.
That’s when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Two years later, he tore the meniscus in the same knee. Nine months later, he tore the ACL in his right knee.
Which is how a former NBA All-Star still in the prime of his career at 30 winds up at 33 in an almost empty Reno Events Center in the NBA D-League Showcase, making $25,000 a year playing for the Austin Toros.
“I’m in this league because I’ve been given an opportunity to show people that I can still play basketball,” Howard said. “And I’m here because I’m still having fun.”
Howard admits that he “got kinda down” after tearing up his second knee and had to begin the rehabilitation process all over, but said he never thought about retirement.
“Injuries happen,” he said. “It’s part of the game and it’s just something else that you’ve got to find a way to overcome. I don’t have a reason to feel sorry for myself. No. Not at all.”
Howard went to training camp in October with the defending Western Conference champions. But though he couldn’t earn a spot on the roster, the Spurs offered him a chance to continue his comeback with their D-League affiliate. Playing in Austin allows him to be close to his children, who live a three-hour drive away in Dallas.
Though Howard was cautioned by his agent and friends that he was in for the culture shock adjustment of making bus rides instead of charter plane flights to games, trading in the Ritz-Carlton luxury of the NBA for budget accommodations and playing before in small town arenas, he claims there was no hesitation about joining D-League life.
“I’m not the typical NBA player that sits there and worries about what other people think,” Howard said. “There’s not an ounce of me that says any of this is beneath me. I play the game because I love it. I know there are other guys out there that might not want to do it. But to get the opportunity to play the game again after I tore my ACL a couple years ago, I had to jump at the chance. That’s how I was raised my mama and my grandma — don’t ever waste an opportunity.”
So Howard wrote his name on the short list with Antoine Walker as the only NBA All-Stars to ever play in the D-League. He’s played in nine games with the Toros, averaging 12.8 points and 4.3 rebounds and is currently nursing a hamstring injury that he suffered on Saturday.
“Before the hamstring I was running with all these 23- and 24-year-olds and keeping up,” Howard said. “The positive thing from the knee injuries is that I’ve had most of three years of no wear and tear on my legs, so they don’t have the typical mileage of a guy who’s 33.
“I’ve been working on getting myself back into the kind of shape that I need to play in the NBA. At this point, I can’t say how close I am. I’ve only been playing here for two months, just working into the swing of things. I’ll keep being confident. It’s up to the GM’s in the league to pick me up to the next level.”
Howard never had the long shooting range that could make him a floor spacer. The knee injuries have taken away his former explosiveness going to the rim. But he’s still convinced he can play.
If he doesn’t get a call-up from the NBA this season, Howard said he’ll keep pushing on.
“Right now, I’m focused on the getting this team better, getting myself better and if that call-up comes, I’m taking it,” he said. “If not, I’m gonna finish out the season out here. Then maybe it’s the summer league, if the opportunity presents itself.
“Some people don’t get one chance at the NBA. As long as I’m getting another one, I’ll take it. It’s a chance to keep living my dream.”